SPANISH LEAGUE 2018-19: 5 teams to contend for the top spots
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — From Lionel Messi’s Barcelona to Atletico Madrid hoping to surpass Real Madrid orphaned by Cristiano Ronaldo, here is a look at the top contenders for the 2018-19 Spanish league:
Defending champion Barcelona has dominated the domestic competition for nine of the last 14 seasons.
Add in the huge loss suffered by Madrid following Ronaldo’s transfer to Juventus in Italy, and the Catalan club has all the numbers to retain the title.
Messi will again be looking to thrive for his club following another disappointing summer with Argentina, which was eliminated in the last 16 of the World Cup.
The 31-year-old Messi is still in his prime and, without Ronaldo as a competitor, will be the league’s undisputed star.
Coach Ernesto Valverde returns for a second season, but will be missing midfielder Andres Iniesta, who decided to finish out his glorious career in Japan. Paulinho also returned to the Chinese league after one campaign at Camp Nou.
Atletico finished runner-up to Barcelona last season and is considered the leading rival in the title fight, especially without Ronaldo at Madrid.
Atletico said farewell to two of its iconic players in Fernando Torres and longtime captain Gabi Fernandez, who left for Japan and Qatar, respectively. It added France winger Thomas Lemar and Portugal forward Gelson Martins, along with 22-year-old Rodrigo “Rodri” Hernandez, who has the makings of an excellent holding midfielder following a superb season with Villarreal.
But Atletico’s biggest boost this summer came when Antoine Griezmann turned down an offer from Barcelona and stayed in the capital.
The club also kept goalkeeper Jan Oblak and, more importantly, Diego Simeone, the Argentine coach who has made Atletico arguably the best defensive side in Europe.
Simeone will hope last season’s Europa League title will spur pursuit of a first Spanish league trophy since 2014 and give the club another shot at an elusive Champions League crown.
Madrid’s season will hinge on one factor: Its ability to overcome the loss of Ronaldo.
New coach Julen Lopetegui already had the daunting task of following the hugely successful Zinedine Zidane.
But that was before the former Spain manager discovered he wouldn’t be able to count on Ronaldo and his average of 50-plus goals a season.
Gareth Bale, often maligned by the Madrid sports press, has an opportunity to shine in attack alongside Karim Benzema.
Luka Modric will also be tasked with becoming a leader from his position in midfield, and Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has arrived to compete with Keylor Navas.
Madrid had an eerily quiet offseason otherwise, with its signings being limited to right back Alvaro Odriozola and a pair of Brazilians teenagers in Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo.
Valencia will be aiming for another top-four finish as it returns to the Champions League.
But coach Marcelino Garcia Toral could hope for even bigger things considering the strong play of his side for stretches of last season.
Valencia has retained most of its key players, namely strikers Rodrigo Moreno and Simone Zaza, midfielders Geoffrey Kondogbia, Carlos Soler and Dani Parejo, and goalkeeper Neto. It boosted the attack with Russia international Denis Cheryshev, Atletico’s Kevin Gameiro and Chelsea’s Michy Batshuayi, while also adding midfielder Daniel Wass and defender Cristiano Piccini.
Villarreal has improved a squad that finished fifth last season with the goal of breaking into the top four and securing a Champions League berth.
Javier Calleja’s side has bought back striker Gerard Moreno from Espanyol after he scored 16 league goals in 2017-18.
The “Yellow Submarine” also has Santi Cazorla, the 33-year-old midfielder who returns after playing several years with Arsenal.